Talking Business: Composites industry struggling

Business owner Monty Felix finds himself in a weird position these days - a small-government supporter asking the government for some help.

But as the Calhoun County pool-maker admitted: "These are exceedingly difficult times."

Felix is president of his national trade group, the American Composites Manufacturers Association. The group represents a $42 billion industry with 3,000 makers of composites (think: fiberglass and Kevlar) that employ more than 250,000.

The 61-year-old California native has met with congressional leaders and Cabinet secretaries in efforts to help his industry, made up mostly of small businesses. Many are struggling through the recession.

Felix should know: Revenue at his Alaglas Pools, where he makes pools costing from $20,000 to $35,000, has dropped by half over the past two years. He has laid off 45 of his 60 employees at his St. Matthews business.

"Last year, it was over a cliff," Felix said. "We see some indications that in the spring things might get a little better."

Felix spoke with The State last week about his work with his trade association and his continued support of embattled Gov. Mark Sanford:

First the basics: What are some of things that use composites?

They are used in recreational vehicles, skis, boats, cars, jets and protective armor for soldiers and their vehicles, Felix said.

Composites are used as wood replacement for decking and pilings, as well as for material to build bridges. "They're long-lasting and strong in nature, and they're light and cost-effective," he said.

What issues is your industry tackling?

"We want to make sure we're a recognized material in government contracts," Felix said.

The composites manufacturers association wants language in contracts that suggest using its materials in construction projects. For instance, the contracts would say work should include "long-lasting, corrosion-resistant materials," Felix said.

"Everyone has a lobby. You've got a steel lobby, and you've got aluminum and wood lobbies," Felix said. "They all want the government to recognize them as sole material of choice (for projects)."

Composites cost more upfront, but Felix wants to change the mind-set in Congress to make decisions based on a life-cycle cost analysis rather than initial price.

This year, the composites association helped establish a 25-member Congressional Composites Caucus co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Lexington Republican. The caucus held its first meeting in July. (U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, a Republican from the Upstate, also is a member of the caucus.)

What else are you working on?

The industry is working on using composites in making wind mills to produce energy. Composites can be used in the blades and shaft on the mills. "This is a huge opportunity," Felix said.

You met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke last month. What did you discuss?

Felix said he was trying to win a $20 billion loan guarantees for small businesses so they can stay open.

"Too many are liquidating assets to stay in business," he said. "We can't get the banks to loan money right now."

The association wants to make lending more attractive to banks by giving them a bigger cut of fees and lower liability if loans go bad.

Doesn't this go counter to your small-government philosophy?

"I'm a basic conservative business guy and would be the last one in the world to ask for a handout," Felix said. "What we're asking for is a hand up. ... They would have a financial obligation to pay back."

What do you do as chairman of the S.C. Small Business Regulatory Review Committee?

Established by Gov. Mark Sanford as an offshoot of a federal law, Felix was appointed to the committee that reviews all proposed agency regulations for potential harm to businesses.

A recent example is a discussion over adjusting daycare regulations to accommodate the needs of smaller centers, he said.

What do you think of Sanford's recent controversies?

"This whole thing is unfortunate," said Felix, who was once appointed by Sanford as a deputy director of the S.C. Department of Social Services.

"I am very pleased that the governor is getting back to work. I still believe in the governor's message of smaller government and less taxes."